Foggy Motion 

Bike Share in Portland Is More Uncertain Now Than a Year Ago

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PORTLAND'S FINALLY got the money for bike share. It's just unsure what to do with it.

In the 14 months since Portland officials inked a deal with Alta Bicycle Share for a 750-bike rental system, less is certain about the system than the day the contract was signed.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) won't divulge how much equipment might cost, and whether its current number is above or below initial projections. It's no longer even clear what company or companies will end up supplying the bikes and docking stations—despite Alta pushing a new system that it says represents a step forward in bike-share technology.

"Before the city closes a purchase order, we want to evaluate the planned bike-share system to make sure it's the best thing we can buy," says Dylan Rivera, a PBOT spokesman.

That uncertainty runs contrary to what Alta's been saying lately. And it comes after a spate of bad publicity for the company.

Alta's been under intense scrutiny since late March, when New York City's largest newspapers began documenting the financial turmoil and service issues plaguing their local bike-share system, Citi Bike.

In light of the reports, the Oregonian's editorial board (stridently critical of bike share for months) has called on the city to scrap the whole thing.

In response, Alta officials—typically tight-lipped about the project—have written op-eds and appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting to assure everyone that Portland's long-anticipated system is on track.

And it's true Alta has found enough sponsorship money for bike share. Rivera confirmed the company has submitted a "system financing report" to PBOT—a document that was to be handed in when funds are fully secured, according to the city's contract with Alta. (PBOT hadn't responded, as of press time, to the Mercury's request for the report.)

But with Portland's twice-delayed bike share now slated to hit the streets in 2015, the city suddenly needs to decide where to put that money.

In January, Alta's Montreal-based supplier, Public Bike System Company (PBSC), filed for bankruptcy. That's a problem: Portland had been counting on purchasing the company's bike-share docking system—just like New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, and others.

Alta's lengthy project proposal also made clear PBSC's docking systems were part of the bargain. That assumption informed the city's cost estimates for the project: $14.6 million, over five years, to purchase and run a system.

"The PBSC system has received worldwide attention and recognition for its quality and innovation," the proposal read, calling it "arguably the best bike-share technology available in the world today."

Equipment from PBSC was so integral that it's still named as a supplier in the contract Alta signed with the city. ("We'll bring contract amendments to the city council when it's time," Rivera says.)

In PBSC's absence, Alta hurriedly formed a partnership with 8D Technologies, also based in Montreal. That company has years of experience building successful software for bike share—it was PBSC's software supplier, before PBSC began writing its own buggy code.

But 8D has never built docking stations. Even so, it's announced a system will be ready for deployment by this summer. Alta executives—who insist Portland's software will be time-tested, unlike New York's—think Portland will buy in.

"The software in New York was a new software," Alta Vice President Mia Birk said in a recent appearance on OPB's Think Out Loud. "That is not the software that will be deployed in Portland. Portland's will be fully tested, very advanced software."

"When bike share begins in Portland next spring, we will be getting a state-of-the-art product (including software different from New York's) that has been successfully street-tested in communities such as Boston, London, Toronto, Montreal, and Washington DC," Alta President and CEO Michael Jones wrote in the Oregonian.

According to Rivera, though, that's not a done deal. PBOT refused to divulge the proposed cost of a bike-share system under Alta's new arrangement with 8D—arguing those estimates are "trade secrets."

But Rivera made clear that, while initial reviews of the 8D system have been positive, PBOT is considering all its options.

"Our contract is with Alta," Rivera said. "Alta's preferred supplier is 8D; the city does not have a contract with 8D."

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